Friday, March 12, 2010

Form Follows Function

If this post is a little scatter brained and spastic, please bear with me.

You may or may not have come across the term “Functional Training” in the fitness world.  Since there is little regulation in the fitness industry, anyone can call anything whatever they want.  All too often trainers or salesmen use the term “functional” to describe things like bicep curls while kneeling on a Swiss Ball.

But what does this ill-defined, oft’ misused term really mean?  If you look up the word functional in the dictionary, you’ll see it means:

“capable of serving the purpose for which it was designed”

We then must ask, what purpose are ball kneeling bicep curls designed to serve?  I’m a proponent of the theory that doing something generally makes you better at doing that thing.  If you frequently find yourself kneeling on a ball needing to lift something in a slow arcing motion to your shoulder, this would this exercise would be very functional, otherwise, not so much. 

I see it like this:

Real functional training = movements you might actually do outside the gym

Generally, in the real world, you use more than one muscle at a time.  Typically several joints and muscles move in a coordinated manner to accomplish the task at hand, so most functional training should incorporate these “compound movements.”  A bicep curl is a simple movement because the bicep is the only primary mover, and the elbow is the only joint moving.  A row is a compound movement because the biceps, lats, posterior delts, rhomboids, etc are all working together to move the weight and both the elbow and shoulder are moving throughout the lift.  Doing these compound lifts strengthen each muscle involved individually, but it also trains the muscles to work together in a coordinated fashion.  The neuro-muscular networks learn what order to fire the muscle fibers in order to do that lift efficiently. 

Another thing functional can do is make your body deal with or create forces you might find outside the gym.  For example, single leg training creates some twisting forces and some sideways forces that you have to counter in order to stay balanced.  Since you are on one foot frequently while walking or running, that one footed balance has some carry over to the real world. 

A third way to look at functional training is as a way to correct or prevent an imbalance.  For example, If you do a ton of chest exercises but never do any upper back exercises, you create a strength imbalance at the shoulder.  The stronger chest muscles will tend to pull your shoulders forward and disrupt your posture.  In that case, working the upper back will help to correct that imbalance and straighten out your posture.   Other areas you might see an imbalance is internal rotation vs. external rotation of the shoulder or hip, extension vs. flexion of the knee, etc.

An example of what I consider to be one of the most truly functional movements is the deadlift.  If you’re not familiar with the deadlift, Click Here Why is this such a functional move?  Every one of us will have to bend down and pick something up off the ground at some point in your life.  Most of us have to pick relatively heavy things up from time to time; that is exactly what the deadlift trains you to do.  It builds all the muscles, tendons, ligaments, coordination, and synergy needed to pick up something off the ground.  Also, assuming you use proper form whilst training, it will teach you how to pick stuff up safely and make it second nature to you.  How’s that for some injury prevention?  I also really like the move because it works a lot of muscles very effectively in a short span of time.  The deadlift is often one of the lifts that people can lift the most weight with; to me that says there is a lot of resistance to be shared among a bunch of muscles, so it elicits a strong response from your body toward muscle development.

Some other examples of highly functional movements: pull-ups or rope climbing, because you are lifting your body up as if climbing something; shoulder press because it’s like lifting something heavy up to put on a high shelf.

One thing to consider when looking at what is and is not functional is “what is functional for ME?”  Functional for a professional strongman is going to be completely different than functional for a businessman who plays golf on the weekend. 

-Now, go do some push-ups-

Ps. My apologies to the people at from whence the Swiss Ball picture came.  I haven’t reviewed their exercise program; it may be legit, but I just saw that photo and decided to use it as an example.  

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